Hot on the heels of the announcement that the government and BC Ferries have cancelled Bella Coola’s Route 40 ferry service, dozens of community members showed up to the corporations ‘BC Coastal Ferries Community Engagement’ meeting at Lobelco Hall on November 22nd.
Poorly advertised and slated for the dinner hour on a Friday night, the meeting saw a good turnout despite the weak efforts on behalf of BC Ferries to promote it. Understandably, many were taken aback with the title of ‘Community Engagement,’ when the decision to cut off one of the most important services to the Bella Coola Valley and the Chilcotin appears to have already been made.
“What is the point of this meeting,” asked Bella Coola resident Jenny Roberts. “You’ve already made your decision, so why are you here?” Roberts went on to stress that although the ferry service may suffer a financial loss, the economic benefits to the communities far outweigh the costs. “People need the employment this ferry supports,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a ghost town.”
This sentiment and many others were repeated over and over again by each speaker to take to the microphone. The feelings of anger, betrayal, and indignation were palpable. After years of economic depression, a fledging tourism industry has been steadily rising, and losing the ferry service is a terrific blow.
“As a former member of the Ferry Advisory Committee, I understand the complexity of these decisions,” said Stephen Waugh. “However, this decision completely ignores the social, cultural, and economic values and impacts on our communities. What’s doubly insulting is that this decision is coming from our own government, who are supposed to be considering these issues.”
John Morton, business owner in the Valley for 45 years, was equally as scathing in his comments directed at government, comparing them to a bully such as Mike Tyson. “We have suffered massive economic and demographic changes over the years, but we have picked up and carried on,” said Morton. “It feels like we’ve been knocked down one time too many. The government and BC Ferries are working against us, and it’s not right, just, or fair.”
Resident Ken Dunsworth also leveled some serious accusations, comparing the cancellation of the ferry service to the economic collapse of fishing and forestry. “The big corporations took all the resources out of here, they left nothing for us,” said Dunsworth. “We had to rebuild on our own, and we did it with tourism. Everything we’ve ever done economically has been taken away from us by government, and now they’re doing it again. This is a drain on the spirit of the people who live here, and I think it’s time for a fight.”
Assistant Deputy Minister (Marine Division) Kevin Richter did most of the talking for the government, and the pressure was evident. “The government has made its decision,” said Richter. “The vessel is operating at only 30 percent capacity on the route, and the estimated cost to replace it in two years is approximately $100,000,000.”
The financial loss on the route, which is estimated at a $725,000 per year by BC Ferries, and the replacement cost of the Queen of Chilliwack are the two main reasons government officials are citing to support their decision to cancel it. However, residents and tourism operators had many suggestions on how to respond to both of those hurdles.
The first was a suggestion – brought forth many times by local and Chilcotin tourism operators – that the route be limited to a direct Port Hardy – Bella Coola service. This would eliminate the need for a replacement vessel with cabins for a crew (one of the main concerns of BC Ferries in seeking a replacement) and it would also make the route more attractive to tourists. Mid-coast ferry service would continue to operate as it does during the bulk of the year.
There was also the repeated complaint about BC Ferries lack of action on marketing the route. “I was a member of the FAC for 12 years,” said tourism operator Kathy Nylen. “Over and over again we stressed that the route needed to be marketed correctly, but it never happened. I finally quit this spring because all the meetings were the same.”
CCRD CAO Darla Blake also presented notes from a meeting she had with government officials at the UBCM, in which she understood that the government was committed to “working collaboratively” on the issue.
“Since the UBCM conference in September, the Regional District Chairs and CAOs have been tirelessly continuing on-going discussions to try to find solutions on the BC Ferries issue, and many solutions have been put forward by this group. The question is – is anyone in the Provincial government or BC Ferries willing to listen?” said Blake. “As you can imagine, it came as a complete surprise to us when the Minister made the shocking announcement about the ferries, including the loss of the Port Hardy – Bella Coola ferry service.”
Community members also took issue with the Nimpkish being touted as the replacement vessel for service to Bella Coola. Capacity on the Nimpkish is severely restricted (16 car capacity compared with 135 on the Queen of Chilliwack) and absolutely no services are offered for passengers. In addition, the Nimpkish is unable to take RV’s, which make up the majority of vehicles on Route 40, and the waiting and transfer times at Bella Bella make the journey almost intolerable. “The Nimpkish will not work,” said Ernest Hall of Bella Coola Valley Tourism. “People will not do it.”
In an interview last week, Minister Todd Stone said the decision was to cancel Route 40 was difficult, but necessary to keep the ferry service sustainable. “We understand it will have a significant impact on businesses in Bella Coola and beyond but the decision has been made,” said Stone. “The status quo simply cannot continue.”
Stone also took issue with the commonly held assumption that the ferries are part of the highway system in BC and should be treated as such. “The ferries are not part of the highway system,” said Stone. “No past government has ever supported that stance, and this government agrees with that position.”
While Stone remained firm that the government considers the route unsustainable, he also said that the government is open to ‘considering any feedback’ that has resulted from the engagement meetings.
“We are going to assess that feedback,” he said. “However, at the end of the day, the government is committed to moving forward with the reductions we have announced.”
But the community is not giving up without a fight. Bella Coola Valley Tourism has been working with their cohorts in the Chilcotin, the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, and their First Nations allies, the Nuxalk, Heiltsuk, and Kitasoo Nations. BCVT tourism representatives have been making their voice heard on CBC Radio, a petition is available to sign at local businesses or online, and a letter writing campaign has been launched.
Local NDP MLA Jennifer Rice has been vocal in her opposition to the plan, calling the cuts ‘devastating.’ Cariboo-Chilcotin Liberal MLA Donna Barnett has stated her support for Route 40, saying she will be ‘supporting a decision to keep Route 40 operating’.